Michael On Everything Else

Political Ethics In An Age Of Terror

The title of this post is taken from a book I’m currently reading, titled The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff. Reading the book is an extension of a recently started project of explicitly defining my macro-laws; my system of beliefs and theories of how the world works and how I interact with it.

Years ago, in 2008 and 2009 I maintained a blog that focused on what I saw as America’s identity crisis stemming from the attacks of 9/11. I felt then and still feel that American society lost itself in the aftermath. Americans are now fearful of their own shadow and have been willing to allow their government to not only violate civil rights against unreasonable searches, but also to engage in military conflict for fifteen consecutive years. President Obama will have the legacy of both earning the Nobel Peace Prize and being the first president in U.S. history to preside over war* for his entire two-term presidency. This statement isn’t an indictment of Obama, just (hopefully) a salient point that the US has been engaged in military conflict in the Middle East for a long time.

One of my main earliest and longest-held arguments for the identity crisis was the acquiescence to enhanced interrogation, a PC term for torture. My gut feeling on torture then and now is that it must be avoided. That’s my gut feeling. But when I rationalize things, it becomes more complicated and less black-and-white. Part of the reason I’m now reading this book is to further explore the dilemma of a liberal democracy torturing her enemies, especially in light of a presidential candidate clearly embracing the notion as part of his campaign. During the eleventh Republican debate, Donald Trump went on record with this:

...can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That's my opinion. (Full Transcript at WashingtonPost.com)

This begs the question ‘just how far would he go?’ Though he walked the statement back a bit in the following days, the idea still out there and he isn’t alone in thinking that the U.S. should do more than just waterboarding. It has also been said we should be ‘working on the dark side,’ to paraphrase Dick Cheney.

Is that the case? Do we really need to lower our moral standards to fight with savages ? Even though my gut says ‘no,’ as I continue to explore and seek to understand the dilemma, I continue to question my gut.

Below are some of my Kindle notes from the book.

The foundation of a democracy is its defense of individual’s freedom:

A democracy has no more important purpose than the protection of its members, and rights exist to safeguard that purpose.


When democracies fight terrorism, they are defending the proposition that their political life should be free of violence.


I argue that actions which violate foundational commitments to justice and dignity—torture, illegal detention, unlawful assassination—should be beyond the pale.

After defining the moral playing-field, the author begins talking about chosing the lesser of evils and when a liberal democracy does so, it must do it within the confines of democracy and the process of adversarial justification, which he defines:

Adversarial justification is an institutional response, developed over centuries, to the inherent difficulty of making appropriate public judgments about just these types of conflicts of values.

However, the crux of the matter, as he defines it, is that without the government, there can be no protected rights, and therefore:

Such freedom, therefore, must depend on the survival of government and must be subordinate to its preservation.


The old Roman adage—the safety of the people is the first law—set few limits to the claims of security over liberty.


In the name of the people’s safety, the Roman republic was prepared to sacrifice all other laws.


What makes security appear to trump liberty in terrorist emergencies is the idea—certainly true—that the liberty of the majority is utterly dependent upon their security.

I’m just through the first chapter of the book now and find it extremely informative and useful in not only articulating my objection to torture, but also to understand my potential willingness to accept it in certain, exceptional cases.

More to come on this one—I’m sure.

All quotes taken from:

Ignatieff, M. (2004). The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Gifford Lectures (Princeton University Press)). Princeton University Press.